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Permission denied

In 1983 I was detained for taking a photograph on the Red Sea Road to Hurghada which had recently reopened following the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. It was a glorious day, driving with my boyfriend in his new red jeep. The road ran so close to the sea you could see dolphins leaping as you whizzed by. When it got too hot we stopped to dip in the purest of seas, its coral reefs teeming with life, then drove on to yet another idyllic beach. As the day progressed, the setting sun painted the desert mountains shades of mauve, pink and molten gold; I wanted a picture and asked my friend to pull over.

Earlier we’d noticed a group of off-duty soldiers, fishing rods perched on their shoulders, riding the back of a pick-up on the otherwise empty road. Suddenly they reappeared, but the fishing rods had somehow become rifles. In focusing my lens on the mountains I’d failed to notice the presence of a state-owned oil refinery. The soldiers piled out of a truck and their officer demanded my camera. ‘Give it to him,’ my Egyptian friend said. ‘No way,’ I answered, incensed by his unseemly ‘surrender’.

The officer was about to open the film case but I tore it from his hands. Owing to that inexplicable sense of American entitlement, I put up a good fight. When hauled in for questioning, I gave my name as Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women.

Illustration by *Sarah John*

‘Well, Louey,’ said the officer, ‘you’re an American, so you must have heard of the FBI.’

‘Of course, is that what this is?’

‘Louey, this outfit’s more like the CIA, so why don’t you give me your passport?’

I spent the night on the floor of a Suez police captain’s office, beneath a photograph of President Hosni Mubarak. In the morning a soldier brought tea and I was released. My friend was less comfortably lodged and had to wait for his car to be disimpounded, but I didn’t care. Riding home on the bus my pique subsided, and the glee of adventure returned. It was no big deal, and I had anyway no-one to blame but myself. One of the first words I’d learned in Arabic was mamnu’aa, ‘forbidden’, and I’d heard it often when producing a camera, a conditioned response to a gadget that a defensive regime had linked to treason and spies.

I was constantly being told not to photograph whatever it was that interested me, however innocent (a staircase, a billboard) it might have been. Part of my Egyptian education consisted of finding ways to break the rules. It was usually easy, a tip for the recalcitrant guardian of the building I wished to photograph, a lie about having lived and fondly remembered a place I’d never seen. Not everyone was wary of the lens: children corralled me by the dozens until I’d taken a picture of every last one, though they knew they’d probably never see themselves. For every mamnu’aa I encountered, there were a dozen ‘go right aheads’, reflecting a typically Egyptian ambivalence regarding authority: submission on the one hand, anarchy on the other.

Egypt’s paradoxical brew of freedom and constraint inspired a sense of daring. My phone was tapped and mail opened, but I could roam the city safely exploring at will. In those days police blockades were set up on Cairo’s bridges and at the entry to the medieval quarter and the City of Dead, favourite havens of drug traffickers. My foreign status could get me past the blockades and, I trusted, out of most jams. It seemed like good fun at the time, but the irony of having chosen to express my independence in a police state has lately become apparent to me. I got away with a lot, but my Egyptian hosts were living under martial law.

The suspension of due process has since eroded Egyptian society in countless unexamined ways. Politically, there are no viable alternatives to the ruling party; socially, virtually no creative respite from the daily grind. Religious strictures have grown absurd: some young Muslims now refrain from shaking hands with members of the opposite sex unless they are related or married. The balance between what is prohibited and allowed has tipped decidedly the wrong way. I notice it not only in people around me, but in myself. Egypt teaches patience and forbearance, but also self-censorship, vulnerability and resignation. Yet nothing is more forbidden, publicly or privately, than despair.

Maria Golia is the author of the non-fiction Cairo, City of Sand (Reaktion Books, 2004) and the forthcoming book Photography and Egypt.

New Internationalist issue 426 magazine cover This article is from the October 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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